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November 2010    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 25, No. 11   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Underwater Scooter Racing.

from the November, 2010 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

At 5 foot 7 and 130 pounds, Michael Vivona has never excelled in sports. But that changed the first weekend in October when the 56-year-old engineering supervisor for an Orlando television station earned a championship in an emerging extreme sport: underwater scooter racing.

Vivona piloted his $7,000 Dive X Cuda 1150 to victory in a fleet of fifteen in the Wes Skiles Memorial Shootout in Key Largo, the third event of the newly formed Wreck Racing League’s Formula H2O circuit. The race was held 45 feet deep on the wreck of the Benwood, a 360-foot merchant freighter.

Vivona, a self-described tech head who overcame crippling migraines in both Saturday’s practice and Sunday’s race, credited his win to his size. “I’m real small. I’m more streamlined. The whole thing in the water is drag,’’ he said. There are very few sports that require you to be small. This appears to be one of those like a jockey racing a horse.’’ Vivona won a trophy, the checkered flag, a congratulatory underwater kiss from mermaid Toni Hyde and a decorative belt handed over by the series’ defending champion, David Ulloa.

Racing diver propulsion vehicles (DPVs) is the brainchild of Joe Weatherby, who spearheaded the 2009 sinking of the Vandenberg as an artificial reef off Key West, and Dave Sirak, who works with Vivona at WFTV Channel 9 in Orlando. Pondering a way to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the missile tracker’s deployment, they planned to race each other around the Vandenberg, but then decided to open the event. A fleet of nine DPVs lined up for the June 13 contest, which was won by Miami’s Dean Vitale, inventor of the Pegasus Thruster, a hands-free DPV that attaches to a scuba tank.

Encouraged by the competitors’ enthusiasm, the Wreck Racing League took its fledgling Formula H2O circuit to Fort Lauderdale for the Gold Coast Underwater Grand Prix on Aug. 22. A fleet of 24 racers did laps around the sunken freighter Tracey at 70 feet, with Ulloa, an underwater cinematographer from Reddick in Central Florida, taking the trophy.

Known among racers as the Shark Whisperer, Ulloa is sponsored by Submerge Scooters, which he uses in his job shooting video in water-filled caves. His Magnus 950, which retails for about $6,500, can reach speeds of 300 feet per minute. “This sport is not cutthroat,” he said. “It’s camaraderie. It brings people together from all types of diving for a very fun activity.’’

Following the October Wes Skiles Memorial (Skiles died in a diving accident in July off Boynton Beach), Weatherby announced tentative plans to hold a fourth race in Key West in November. “It’s the new X Games,’’ he said. “We are about alternative power and all things environmental. Everybody’s determined to make the league a success.’’

Originally used by scientific, technical and military divers, DPVs are priced between $200 and $10,000. About a dozen models are expected to be displayed at the annual Dive Equipment and Marketing Association show in Las Vegas in November. DEMA executive director Tom Ingram said he’s glad for any emerging sport that boosts scuba diving’s profile. “People are always looking for ways to compete with each other,’’ Ingram said. “There’s not a lot besides breath hold diving and spearfishing that you can have competition underwater.’’

Formula H2O racing has provided great fun and stress relief for Nathan Cruz, 37, a retired U.S. Army staff sergeant who lives in Miami. Cruz survived his Chinook helicopter being shot down in Afghanistan in 2008 only to suffer severe injury days later when his motorcycle was struck by an SUV near Fort Campbell, KY. Confined to a wheelchair, he underwent months of physical therapy, became a certified scuba diver through the Wounded Warriors program last spring and has scored two third-place finishes in Formula H2O.

“I was born to fly,’’ Cruz said, smiling. “Every time I go diving, I come out and nothing hurts.’’

For information on competition visit www.wreckracingleague.com

From an article by Susan Cocking, Miami Herald, October 9, 2010

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